Infamous film critic Roger Ebert described movies as “empathy machines.” Cinema has the unique ability to enthrall our senses and exploit our emotions. From joy and sorrow to awe and disgust, movies are carefully crafted to capitalize on our humanity and elicit responses. That’s what keeps audiences captivated and the film industry in business. In my introductory video at the start of this course, I shared that I was challenging myself to keep an open mind about Hollywood’s take on the Holocaust because, as I noted, “it feels disrespectful and inappropriate for people to profit off this subject matter.” In continuing this journey, with the humility to learn coupled with critical discernment, I have chosen to explore Hollywood and the Holocaust in this comparative analysis.
The films I selected are American-made, well-known, and award-winning. I first saw the 1982 film Sophie’s Choice many years ago, admittedly because it starred Kevin Kline whom I adore. I was not aware that it was a “Holocaust film” – I thought it was a period-piece romantic-drama. I was not a mother yet at the time, but the climatic reveal still deeply disturbed and haunted me. The more recent film The Book Thief, made in 2013, was familiar to me only in name, as I recall seeing a novel with the same title. I chose the former because of the long-lasting effect it had on me, and I wanted to revisit it and explore it in the context of this course. I chose the latter because, based on the synopsis and still images, it seemed so innocuous and so “Hollywood” and I was curious about how deep the thematic waters would go.
Sophie’s Choice was written and directed by Alan J. Pakula, who studied the Holocaust documentary Night & Fog while scripting the film – the influence is clearly seen in the contrasts between “past and present, stasis and movement, despair and hope.” (Insdorf, 36) Sophie’s Choice takes place mainly in 1947 Brooklyn and centers on three main characters: Sophie, a beautiful and fragile Polish-Gentile; Nathan, a “charismatic but psychotic” (Gonshak, 167) Jew; and Stingo, a naive young man from the South who has come to New York with a little money and a lot of determination to write his first novel.
When Stingo arrives at the Brooklyn boarding house that is to be his new home, he crosses the threshold into a startling new world of dysfunction, witnessing a dramatic and disturbing fight between Sophie and Nathan. It’s interesting to note that at this pivotal moment, Stingo forms a “triangle” with Sophie and Nathan – this is a concept popularized by psychologist and prolific writer Harriet Lerner, who coincidentally grew up in Brooklyn in the 1940s as the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants.
Throughout the film, we see the dynamic impact of this triangle. Stingo is not only a surrogate for the electric and destructive emotions that fly between Sophie and Nathan in their toxic and codependent relationship, but he is also a voyeur – and we, the audience, are watching him watching them. This often feels awkward and uncomfortable – not only when Sophie and Nathan are fighting, but also when they are passionately romantic and affectionate. Stingo observes everything, wide-eyed and child-like in his adoration for angelic Sophie and his awe for Nathan, in all his “demonic rage and irresistible charm.” (Maslin)
Stingo also observed a clue to the enigmatic Sophie’s background the first night he met her: a number tattooed on her inner arm – a physical reminder of her imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. Beneath this marker on her skin, we see that the Auschwitz experience is tattooed deep into Sophie’s mind. She is “a survivor who hasn’t really survived” (Gonshak, 168) and is haunted by guilt, secrecy, and shame.
On the surface, Sophie’s aesthetic is striking and sensual. Flowing hair, porcelain skin, and most notably her trademark red lipstick and nails. I believe that Sophie’s vivid makeup was both a literal and a figurative mask, symbolizing vitality and life but as an illusory glamor to cover up the ugliness inside. Throughout most of the film, Stingo is swept up in Sophie’s and Nathan’s “manic ebullience” (Maslin) – alcohol, fancy clothes, music, picnics, even a thrilling day at Coney Island – all a charade to mask their unprocessed trauma, emotional and spiritual millstones that are suppressed and unhealed. Sophie and Nathan attempt to escape from reality and grief, and desperately try to feel alive.
Stingo is so enmeshed and entangled with Sophie and Nathan that he investigates them behind their backs to find out their real stories, learning their secrets and lies. Nathan is in fact not a biologist working at Pfizer but a paranoid schizophrenic and cocaine addict. (This explains but does not condone his emotional and verbal abuse of Sophie.) The stories that Sophie tells about her past are compounded with falsehood, until we learn the secrets and trauma she has buried that reveal themselves in her terror of abandonment and dependency in her toxic relationship with Nathan.
Stingo learns that Sophie’s adored father was arrested and murdered by the Nazis not for being a Jewish sympathizer but simply because he was rounded up with all the other academics at the university in Poland. In fact, Sophie typed up a speech for him to present in which he proposed that the solution to the problem of the Jews was “extermination.” This reveal opens the door for Stingo to sit in vulnerability with Sophie as she tells (most of) her (mostly) true story. It’s interesting to note that this flashback related to the Holocaust happens about 120 minutes into the film in a sequence lasting only about 30 minutes.
Sophie’s recollection is filmed in “desaturated color” (Insdorf, 35) with one exception – the vivid garden of the Nazi Commandant in the midst of the death camp. Sophie opens up and shares that her first husband was an academic along with her father, who was also taken and murdered. She was having an affair around this time, and her lover Józef and his sister were members of an underground resistance. They implored Sophie to help them in a mission to save children from the Nazis but she refused. Soon after, Józef and his sister were discovered and killed by the Gestapo.
Sophie’s mother was dying of tuberculosis and Sophie was caught trying to smuggle a ham to bring home to her. For this infraction, Sophie and her children were detained and put on the train to Auschwitz in 1943. In a poignant moment, the connection is made between a haunting melody repeated in the score of the film and the recorder that Sophie’s daughter is playing on the train. In this segment, Sophie tells Stingo that both of her children are sent to the children’s block of Auschwitz and she goes to the adult side.
Sophie recollects some of her time in Auschwitz. Because of her proficiency in German and her typing skills, she is selected to assist the Nazi Commandant with secretarial functions. It’s a deliberate choice to shift from muted to vibrant color as Sophie enters the lush garden and well-appointed home of the Commandant and his family. Here in the epicenter is a microcosm of healthy, bustling children and their parents, surrounded by the horror and death that is just outside their home within Auschwitz.
Sophie seizes an opportunity alone with the Commandant to use various tactics (sexuality, her father’s stance on Jewish extermination, debased imploring) to appeal to his power in hopes of saving her son who is in the children’s block of Auschwitz that is plagued by a deadly illness. He finally agrees to help her, and she leaves with joyful hope. Soon after, Sophie realizes that the Commandant did not keep his word and that her son is sure to perish, if he wasn’t already dead. We then see glimpses of the harrowing reality of the concentration camp: prisoners standing naked without water for days awaiting extermination, the chimneys of the crematorium billowing foul smoke, and throngs of prisoners gathered around the gallows forced to witness a hanged man.
After Sophie recounts this tale to Stingo, Nathan flies into another one of his paranoia-driven jealous rages. This time he has a gun and threatens to use it, so Stingo and Sophie flee Brooklyn for a modest hotel in Washington D.C. where Stingo, in all his hopeful naivete, tells Sophie that he loves her and wants to marry her and have children on his family farm in Virginia. This is the crucial moment – the “climactic revelation Sophie has fled for the entire story.” (Phipps) She finally tells Stingo the truth she has kept buried, locked away, and hidden from everyone else – the secret that haunts and defiles and sickens her.
When Sophie and her children arrive at Auschwitz, a Nazi soldier approaches her and remarks upon her beauty. Clutching her young daughter in her arms and her young son beside her, Sophie tries desperately to explain that there must be some mistake for them being there; that she is a Christian. The Nazi, with cold cunning, asks her did not Jesus say “Suffer the little children to come unto me?” Confused, Sophie says yes – and the soldier tells her that she must choose: one of her children to be sent to the camp, and the other to be sent to the gas chamber. If she does not choose, they will both be killed.
The next few minutes are torturous for both Sophie and the audience – panic, desperation, bewilderment, terror. Sophie finally makes her choice: “Take my little girl!” And the Nazi wrenches the child from Sophie’s arms and takes her away as the girl screams and cries hysterically. After this shocking revelation, Sophie and Stingo make love. When Stingo wakes the next day, he finds a note from Sophie that she has gone back to Brooklyn to be with Nathan. Stingo follows and returns to their boarding house, swarming with police, and goes upstairs in tears, knowing what he will find: Sophie and Nathan curled up together in bed, a mutual suicide.
Sophie’s death must have been a relief for her because she believed that she did not deserve to live. She was haunted by the dead and damned by her choice – the survivor who didn’t want to survive. Nathan had even asked her, in a moment of sheer cruelty, out of all the millions who died in the Holocaust, why did she live? Sophie punished herself with the same question – she lost her faith in Christ and in God, raged against them, and tried to kill herself after the liberation of Auschwitz. Beneath her veneer of oft-mentioned beauty lurked the ugliness of insidious secrets and malignant shame. Sophie is “a woman who has seen so much hate, death, and dishonor that the only way she can continue is by blotting out the past, and drinking and loving her way into temporary oblivion” (Ebert) and then finally ending her tortured existence.
Alan J. Pakula scripted and directed Sophie’s Choice with “integrity and truthfulness” (Insdorf, 35) and purposefully did not write a happy ending. What sets this film apart from typical Hollywood tropes around this subject matter was the exploration of vulnerability, shame, and mental illness. The scene with Sophie and her children at Auschwitz was engineered to elicit emotion, but the typical exploitation of the Shoah found in most other Hollywood films was absent from this narrative. The focus was not so much on the Holocaust experience, but on its aftermath – the complex humanity of the character triangle; how they were feeding off and impacting each other, and, most notably, how the ghosts of trauma sicken the mind and soul.
If it’s a stretch to categorize Sophie’s Choice as a film about the Shoah when only about 30 minutes was devoted to that horrific experience, then it’s almost absurd to consider The Book Thief a Holocaust movie – but it reeks of the kind of exploitation that only Hollywood can render from “historic horror enlisted in the cause of facile fantasy.” (Cheshire) Similar to Sophie’s Choice, the film The Book Thief was based on a fictional bestseller and received numerous awards and nominations. Critics seem dramatically polarized about this movie, and the observation from Peter Travers in his Rolling Stone review befuddled me once I watched the film. He called The Book Thief “a sweet, reflective fable about death and the Holocaust” – and yet the film barely touched on the Shoah.
The Book Thief focuses on Liesel, a cherubic adolescent girl who is sent to live with a childless middle-aged couple in 1938 Munich. The film begins with expansive shots of white clouds and immaculate snow, narrated in voiceover by “Death” who takes Liesel’s young brother while she travels by train with her mother – the child is buried in a simple ceremony and Liesel swipes a book from a gravedigger, the first of many thefts that gives the story its name.
By the time Liesel arrives in Munich, she is emotionally immobilized and mute, unable to process her brother’s sudden death and her mother’s unexplained abandonment. (It’s later implied that her mother was a Communist.) Her foster mother Rosa is harsh and contemptuous to both her husband Hans and to young Liesel. Hans on the other hand is gentle, kind, and tries to warm up and connect with Liesel. After she is humiliated at school for being a “dummkopf” who can’t read, Hans is determined to help her become literate, even going so far as to set up in the basement a wall-sized, ever-growing collection of words that Liesel is learning.
Liesel’s world begins expanding in concentric circles: language and books, friendship with her neighbor and fellow classmate Rudy (who is openly smitten with her), familial bonding with tender Hans, and a new social identification – the Hitler Youth movement. The neighborhood and school are festooned with Nazi flags and propaganda posters, culminating in a bookburning rally on Hitler’s birthday in which Nazi soldiers and the Burgermeister call for the “end of Jews.” Hans and Liesel reluctantly participate in the nationalist chants, and when the festivities have died down, Liesel tries to steal a book from the smoldering pyre – while being stealthily observed by the Burgermeister’s wife who later invites her into her private library to read the books that her beloved, deceased son was so fond of, and their friendship blooms.
There is a chilling juxtaposition of the Hitler Youth singing a pro-German / anti-Jew anthem with disturbing scenes of Kristallnacht in Stuttgart – the “Night of Broken Glass” when Nazi paramilitary and German civilians unleashed a violent pogrom against Jews. A young Jewish man named Max was able to escape and journeyed to Munich for refuge with Hans and Rosa. We learn that Max’s father sacrificed himself to save Hans in World War I so Hans pledged to protect Max, and set him up in the basement – an act of sedition punishable by death. Rosa becomes vulnerable and maternal with Max, and eventually Liesel and Hans as well.
Events overlap simultaneously at this crucial juncture in the film: England declares war on Germany. Nazi efforts and influence, along with anti-Semitism, intensify. Stress among the adults and excitement in the children builds. Liesel’s hunger for words and stories (including daring book thefts from the Burgermeister’s home) is insatiable. Her friendship with Max deepens as they bond over language, and so does the weight of the secret she must keep of his existence – which she eventually divulges to Rudy, who has become her best friend. Max eventually leaves to keep the family safe, and Hans (who never joined the Nazi Party) is conscripted into the war.
Liesel’s empathy developed, and in a harrowing scene when Nazis were forcibly marching Jews through the streets of Munich, she desperately searched and cried out for Max in the throngs of people. As The Book Thief continues to keep the Shoah at the periphery, we don’t see the inevitable next steps for these Jews – rather, “they remain vaguely wistful images divorced from the cruel reality of their corporeal fates.” (Cheshire)
Air raids had become routine in Munich at this point in the war. Before Hans was conscripted, he would play the accordion to lift the spirits of his family and neighbors sheltering underground. After Hans was deployed, Liesel used storytelling in the shelter to stave off the collective fear and dread, and to connect with the people down in the darkness with her. Hans was sent back home after being injured, but the reunion was short-lived. The Book Thief proceeded to “a rushed conclusion, which tempers the intended tear-jerking climax.” (Merry)
Due to an error on a military map, Munich is accidentally bombed in the night with no air raid warning. Liesel survives and is brokenhearted to see that Hans and Rosa have perished, and Rudy dies in her arms. She seeks comfort with the Burgermeister’s wife. Later when the Allies took over Germany, Max and Liesel joyfully reunite, and the film ends with “Death” reflecting through voiceover of Liesel’s long, rich life as a renowned writer with a loving family.
The Book Thief takes place during World War II and certainly features elements of this dark time in history, but like Sophie’s Choice, it focuses more significantly on the humanity of the characters rather than the Shoah. Ever-present is the naivete of the German children in Munich, whose government, parents, and teachers force indoctrinated Nazi ideals upon their impressionable young minds. It would not be accurate to assess Liesel’s story arc as “coming of age” because she retains a rosy innocence that is never fully developed, though her literacy and empathy do grow exponentially. The allegorical and Kabbalistic concept that “words are life” becomes literal, as the writing of a story in the basement at night result in Liesel surviving the bombing that killed her family and neighbors.
Also comparable to Sophie’s Choice is the theme of family that runs throughout The Book Thief in such saccharine-laced aphorisms as “Every mother loves her child.” and “A mother never gives up on her children.” Logically we know such generalizations cannot always be true, and we know from the dark secret in Sophie’s Choice that sometimes a mother does give up on her children – and must live with the consequences of that decision.
Choice was another theme with resonance in both films. Whereas Sophie’s choices haunted and ultimately destroyed her, the choices in The Book Thief reflected the integrity of the characters; their loyalty and love. Storytelling was another central focus with a sharp dichotomy: Sophie’s story was one of darkness, shame, and death; the stories in The Book Thief were full of empathy, hope, and life.
The key difference between these two Hollywood films was the portrayal of the Holocaust. Though the Auschwitz segment was brief in Sophie’s Choice, it showed the actual events of the Shoah and how they directly impacted Sophie. The Book Thief was heavy on the Nazi regalia and influences in Munich but never revealed the horror behind the politics and paramilitary, which is overshadowed by the larger story of Liesel and her relationships. There is no real suffering or depictions of the Jewish experience, as the Shoah is “reduced to the role of kitschy backdrop, a transposition of true obscenity.” (Cheshire) Most significant was the ending of both films, with Sophie’s Choice opting for tragic realism that honors the long-lasting trauma of the Shoah and The Book Thief concluding with the kind of happy ending that only Hollywood could churn out of the gristle of the Holocaust.
Cheshire, Godfrey. “The Book Thief.” Review of The Book Thief, directed by Brian Percival. RogerEbert.com, 08 November 2013, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-book-thief-2013.
Ebert, Roger. “Sophie’s Choice.” Review of Sophie’s Choice, directed by Alan J. Pakula. RogerEbert.com, 01 January 1982, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/sophies-choice-1982.
Gonshak, Henry. Hollywood and the Holocaust. Rownan & Littlefield, 2015.
Insdorf, Annette. Indelible Shadows. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Maslin, Janet. “Styron’s ‘Sophie’s Choice’.” Review of Sophie’s Choice, directed by Alan J. Pakula. New York Times, 10 December 1982, https://www.nytimes.com/1982/12/10/movies/styron-s-sophie-s-choice.html.
Merry, Stephanie. “‘Book Thief’ movie review.” Review of The Book Thief, directed by Brian Percival. Washington Post, 13 November 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/book-thief-movie-review/2013/11/13/ea0f896a-47db-11e3-a196-3544a03c2351_story.html.
Phipps, Keith. “Sophie’s Choice.” Review of Sophie’s Choice, directed by Alan J. Pakula. The Dissolve, 28 April 2014, https://thedissolve.com/reviews/751-sophies-choice/.
Travers, Peter. “The Book Thief.” Review of The Book Thief, directed by Brian Percival. Rolling Stone, 07 November 2013, https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-reviews/the-book-thief-107376/.